Thursday, March 31, 2016

What life has done to us... dramatically speaking

Bristol Old Vic is 250 years old this year, the first British theatre to reach this distinction. This has not been achieved without struggles (it was nearly a banana-ripening warehouse during the last war) and director Tom Morris attributes its survival to the people of Bristol ~ “a 250 year-old love affair between the theatre and the city” ~ and the official birthday in May will involve a weekend of events both plebeian and gala amid a season of celebration featuring 'five world-class productions - one from each century of the theatre's life.
Representing the 20th century is American playwright's Eugene ONeill's painfully autographical Long Day's Journey into Night, the story of a family in anguish. Three of the four members are hopelessly addicted and one is dying: the father is addicted to money, his elder son to drink and his wife to morphine ~ a 'dope fiend' as her consumptive son puts it. Action takes place over one interminably long day of confessions ignored and reproaches denied, every exchange a cats-cradle of evasion and recrimination. It is, the programme notes admit, 'the saddest play ever written' and, as you will imagine, needs rather splendid embellishment to become a centrepiece in a major celebration.

This production can boast an award-winning director (Richard Eyre, with unstinting eye for visual detail) and star players ~ Jeremy Irons with Lesley Manville as the scapegoat wife, Hadley Fraser and Billy Howle as the sons and Jessica Regan as the maid.  They have a splendid set too (designer Rob Howell) ~ more splendid in fact than suggested by script references, though metaphorical confines are cleverly evoked by lighting shifts; opaqueness, pallid costumes and muted fog-horns all emphasise the bleakness of these ruined lives. (Peter Mumford lighting, John Leonard sound). At over three hours running time this is a marathon for everyone concerned but there was hearty applause on press night and reviews are starry. "Applause at the curtain call reflected the audience's appreciation of Miss Manville's skill," suggested the Bristol post, tactfully.

Another day, another drama of dreadful marriage: Bath's Ustinov Theatre continues a season of French-Canadian plays with Forever Yours, Mary-Lou by Michel Tremblay, translated by Michael West. In this tale also addictions are a tragic factor: for Liam it's beer and belligerence, his wife's are piety and taunting. An admirably simple set comprises four hard-backed chairs and little else.  Liam, Mary-Louise, and their two daughters face the audience throughout, apparently without seeing us: their dialogues overlap and it becomes soon apparent the girls are in a different time zone from their contentious parents. They, like us, are listening in to the Titanic struggle between their father and mother which they remember and which has defined the adults they have both become.
A laconic script, impressive uncluttered direction and superb acting (the father outstanding) all combine to create an unforgettable 75 minutes of quality theatre. Paul Loughran and Caitriona Ni Mhurchu are the parents, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Amy McAllister their daughters. Polly Sullivan designed the set,  Isobel Waller-Bridge was composer and sound designer. Terrific work, all.  You have till the end of April to see for yourself. (photos Simon Annand)

Theatrically this has been a week to echo Philip Larkin's verdict.  But blame not the parents for they were fucked up in their turn...   Man hands on misery to man.  It deepens like a coastal shelf.   Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The week clocks changed and so did the weather.

John Mullan is a Jane Austen expert: he lectures & publishes articles about the significance of Emma to modern literature, and is a highly entertaining speaker, as Rosie and I can confirm from a visit to the rather sumptuous Chapel at Bruton for an answer to the question What Matters in Emma? which turns out, wittily, to be Everything. Emma is a valuable study for any writer of fiction: she pre-empted modern novelists in her use of hidden agenda in viewpoint and her dialogue is superbly differentiated. Mr Mullan revels in deconstructing the small pivot points of plot, and points out ~ which I hadn't noticed before ~ that Mr Perry the apothecary (who makes a killing in vale of bored hypochondriacs) is widely quoted by every character but never actually heard to speak.  Of course if you don't like Jane Austen this revelation won't get you spinning with giddy excitement, but I enjoyed the further evidence of Jane's skill, and indeed the whole talk, and appreciated the welcome with rosé and posh nibbles, too.

A great week for music in Frome. Grain Bar Roots Session featured DLM, a class act from a seriously talented trio, and for
Sunday's afternoon spot at the Archangel, Ben Cipolla shared his own songs and some excellent covers from his busking days, including an unforgettable version of Is this Love.
Good Friday's special treat, for some, was the Wurzels at the Cheese & Grain, ably supported by The Back Wood Redeemers ~ possibly the only band to have yelled at a massive crowd 'You want Jesus or Johnny Cash?'
Spring bank holiday Monday is always Daffodil Day in Mells and traditionally most of Frome makes its way along the three-mile river path to join the crowds enjoying this good old-fashioned country fair.
The Acoustic tent sadly had fallen victim to the storms so the line-up had to lose its larger bands, but Shootin' the Crow rocked with their mix bluegrass and rock&roll. We left before the Wurzels came on the main stage, but even two miles away we were still pursued sounds of zider drinking songs... Great day out, and a rainbow too.

I tend to ignore cultural festivals in my ardent chronicles of Frome but this time I'll make an exception & conclude with this delightful image of Sarah at the Co-op counter channeling the true spirit of Easter. Not a hot cross bun, a cool smiley one.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Some of those March days...

Dickens might have had Dublin in mind when he wrote of one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold, when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.  
I was visiting a friend from college days at Trinity, which ~ I realised as I travelled through the city without recognising an inch of it ~ is now nearly half a century ago. Jenny and I were among the group living in a scruffy den subdivided for students in Sandymount Green, now a trendy suburb where house prices top €1million: It was in that backyard that Mo, my boyfriend since the first year, and I had our wedding party as soon as the finals were over.
We were considered a 'mixed marriage' which was quite rebellious in those days, as was our other decision to then set off to wander the world by public transport. This was 'the summer of love' and though life brings changes I don't think either of us regrets those days of freedom. Here's Trinity as it looked then, and as we looked then. Jenny went on to teach foreign students about Irish culture and now lives in Howth Head, overlooking Dublin Bay and with great walks along the beach.

Back in Frome, Merlin Theatre was featuring The Producers by Mel Brooks, a satire about the jew-centred nature of Broadway which has been around a long time and is chiefly famous for the outrageous and very funny number Springtime for Hitler.
There's sacks of energy, enthusiasm and talent in the song & dance sequences and some excellent acting: Leo & Ulla, the confederates of sleazy producer Max, and director Roger & Carmen his 'common-law assistant' all have great charm and stage presence. The costumes are splendid and as a fund-raiser this appears to have been a big success. As well as providing a showcase for local talent, the production provides an uncanny streak of contemporary relevance too as the crazed dictator cavorts before his minions crowing Give a great big smile - Sieg Heil, everyone to me! soon we'll be going - you bet we'll be going - you know we'll be going to war!

 On Friday the Good Gallery hosted a Mad March Teaparty, with teabags instead of a dormouse stuffed inside the extraordinary teapot made by Steven Jenkins ~ guess how many for a hamper ~ and real hot cross buns and tea. Interesting affordable art and good conversations: sadly this pop-up gallery only has two more weeks of lease.

A very affable group too at Frome Society for Local Study on Saturday when I arrived to talk about 'the writing scene in Frome' to a disconcertingly large audience, though as the society has over 500 members and has published ninety books on local history, I shouldn't really have been surprised. Over the time I've lived in this town I've seen massive escalation of interest in every genre of writing, with support groups & stand-out names in poetry, drama, fiction for both adults & children, memoir, and nonfiction... we have courses & workshops, talks & readings, socials & trips, and performance opportunities too.  It all makes for an egalitarian, non-cliquey, supportive environment in which writers can thrive, and so many people have contributed to this that my appreciations nearly rivalled Kate Winslet at the Oscars but, as Kate would've said too, they all deserved it: Make the world you want to live in, I say, and I'm incredibly lucky to live among creative people who believe that too. (Thanks Gill Harry for the sketch of me in full flow...)

Frome-free footnote: Congratulations to 'A Clearer Head', the team of eggheads who beat the Eggheads on Thursday, scooping £29000 prize money ~ accrued after 28 unbeaten sessions ~ for Alopecia UK. Well quizzed, ladies, and great to see you giggling at the question about the bald eagle.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Stardust night and days of Spring sunshine

I've been wanting to see Bristol's award-winning Wardrobe Ensemble since this young company moved to their classy  new venue in the Old Market and, as I remember 1972 as extremely enjoyable, their current production seemed ideal. 1972: The Future of Sex focuses on three couples and one loner on the night Ziggy Stardust first invaded the nation's living rooms.  It's a time of redefining boundaries but exciting new freedoms bring kickbacks too, and hints of darker times ahead: homophobia, prevalence of porn, rifts in the sisterhood, continuing troubles for transgendered... the show is determined not to be naïve and there are several interesting interjections along the permissive way, like a brief history of porn from paleolithic times, and equality struggles since Mary Wollstoncraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Every romp is counterposed by reminders that new freedoms were scary and demanded new responses from both sexes - and men too have a right to say no to cunilingus or yes to cross-dressing.
But this is theatre not a thesis,  and what works brilliantly is the high-energy cleverly-choreographed physical comedy (especially the orgasms), fabulous live soundtrack (Tom Crosley-Thorne), a great cast (James Newton outstanding both as transgendered Anton and as 'not cool' Michael bombarded by space hoppers). As social commentary it's astute on many points - definitely with the scenario of 'History Man'-style Sociology lecturer and ardent student - but looking back, though conceding confusion and general randiness, I 'd say the media manipulation came later on, like Thatcher, and we were more self-aware than the kids in the Wardrobe give us credit for... But I would say that, wouldn't I?
Devised by directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones together with the cast, 1972: The Future of Sex goes on national tour after its sell-out run in Bristol as part of Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond.  I was lucky to squeeze a ticket (or rather a hand-stamp, this is pub theatre after all) on Thursday which turned out a popular night for theatre directors: in my row also were BOV's Tom Morris and Tobacco Factory's Ali Roberts, who's about to make an our-loss/their-gain move to become Artistic Director at Kneehigh Theatre.

Roots Session at the Grain Bar this week featured We Used To Make Things, a classy London band who always get a great welcome in Frome, superbly supported by Kirsty Clinch.

The Black Swan Arts Young Open competition was judged on Saturday in three ages-groups between 8 and 19, and showed an exciting range and creativity of subject, interpretation, and medium.  Imaginative strong images jostled with charmingly colourful 3-D pieces in a dazzling display ~ congratulations to everyone involved, including the gallery curators.
Also on the subject of art appreciation, our Frome ekphrastic poetry group Words at the Black Swan has, like the Wardrobe ensemble & hopefully similarly successfully, moved to new premises in Cordero Lounge in the precinct. Frome Word Gallery, as we are now, will run monthly art-inspired workshops but no longer tied in with the Sunday market and responding to different exhibitions in the town.  Rebecca Brewin led the first session around the in-house art, with some fascinating responses.  
And to end this post, here's Max Moody soundtracking the Barefoot Boogie at the Bennett Centre on Saturday night.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

And so to London.. and Shanklin... by ferry, bus, and train.

Shanklin in February has a quaint 1950s charm but the wind along the front last weekend was razor-sharp ~ that stuff on the beach is froth whipped up by swirling waves. But The Grange has a wood fire & constant supplies of coffee and biscuits, and my amazing writing group were wonderfully focussed and delightfully inventive in every challenge.
London on Tuesday after the Isle of Wight seemed like time-travel, the city so changed from the place I grew up in.
By bus to Trafalgar Square to revisit the Fourth Plinth where I recited poetry for an hour during the 2009 One and Other project, to revisit my favourite painting in the National Gallery ~ Seurat's Bathers at Asnières ~ then meander via cheesy Covent Garden & vibrant Gerrard Street to Soho Theatre for Luke Wright's one-man show What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. It's a compelling piece powerfully performed, a harshly truthful survey of a lifetime landscape both political and personal, and Luke deservedly won awards for both his 'poetic, pulsating' writing and his 'hurricane of a performance'.  And it's now nominated for an Off West End award too.
 I was sleep-overing with Hazel Carey, whose extraordinary memoir I've been privileged to be involved with. Hazel has been inspirational through her work in communities & holistic centres like Skyros, and was a major spokesperson for the South African artistic heritage: her story, compiled through many voices, is fascinating. The Monti Wa Marumo event in Brixton thirty years ago was her initiative, and this passion for integration and creativity she identifies as Ubuntu - a way of living through other people. She quotes Taggore: “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.” 
Before it was time to head home, Hazel
showed me round her stamping ground of Hampstead including a visit to Keats House where you can see the poet's personal copy of Paradise Lost as well as portraits of Fanny and his friends, watch a film of his life, and try on costumes of his era... here's me doing a bit of swashbuckling and Hazel as a maid. Suitable roles for both of us, Hazel said, I hope ironically.
Back home to a slight dusting of snow that had Frome folk excitedly posting murky orange night shots of gardens and car roofs on facebook but by the weekend all was calm and the Catherine Hill Street Party on Sunday enjoyed blue skies and sunshine.

This was a pop-up event to replace the usual Independent Market (organisers are currently victims of their own success as the last event was gridlocked) and the idea worked really well - artists, writers, and performers up and down the hill, with space in between to move, meet friends, and talk. Here's three of my favourite acts: Al O'Kane, Bonne Nouvelle, and marvellous Captain Cactus with his band and a couple of his Screaming Harlots, and a small boy on trombone.